Director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment Emily Carter is joining two other female theoretical chemists in a call for the boycott of the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry because its preliminary list of speakers did not include women.
Laura Gagliardi, chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, and Anna Krylov, chemistry professor at the University of Southern California, composed an open letter with Carter. The petition, an appeal to “condemn gender-biased discriminatory practices of which ICQC-2015 is the most recent example,” amassed 1,645 signatures by Monday evening.
The petition was in response to a partial list of speakers published on the ICQC website, Krylov said. Among the 24 speakers and five chairs mentioned, the list featured no women.
Carter, who began drawing attention to this issue by personally boycotting conferences 14 years ago, said she was in disbelief when she received emails from Krylov and Gagliardi explaining the lack of women at the ICQC.
“There’s a lot of work to be done to raise consciousness so people realize that there are outstanding women in all fields today,” Carter said. “There’s really no excuse for having a conference of any size that doesn’t have at least some outstanding female speakers.”
Krylov said the organizers of the conference submitted a letter of apology in response to their petition and published a new list on their website including five women. However, she added that although she is glad the organizers of the conference are “patching the problem,” she finds it unacceptable that the culture surrounding women in science is changing so slowly.
“The whole pattern is sending a very wrong message,” she said. “You first invite real speakers and then you say, ‘Okay, if you want your diversity. Here, have your diversity.’ And that has to change.”
Josef Michl, president of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science, oversees the organization of the 2015 ICQC, while Zhigang Shuai of Tsinghua University is responsible for actually putting together the list of speakers. Michl explained that the early publication of the list was a mistake and the list would typically only be published after several academy members had approved it. He added that, in response to the open letter, Shuai sent Michl and other academy members the partial list asking for suggested additions, especially women.
The previous conference held in 2012 had one woman for every seven men, Michl said. The 2015 conference in Beijing will show an improvement, with one female speaker for every five male speakers.
“That, in my opinion, exceeds the number of leading women in the field. But we think that that is good because it kind of promotes the cause of attracting more women to the field,” Michl said.
However, he also said that the notion of composing an initial list without women was odd.
“They did not fully acknowledge the deep issue that women scientists are not inferior. That there are enough women scientists to be included from the very beginning, not an afterthought,” Krylov said.
The core of the problem lies in the hidden biases against women and minority groups, Krylov said.
“That’s why I think it’s extremely important to raise these issues and educate people, because many people do not want to discriminate but they have these hidden bias which play a role,” Krylov said.
Education for combating gender bias suggests scientists evaluate other scientists more quantitatively based on their contribution to the field, she added. This approach promotes women, she said, because using more subjective means to evaluate research might cause people’s gender bias to interfere with their perception of research women had done.
Michl said there is a deeper issue behind the selection of women presenters at major conferences: the treatment and retention of women in science.
“The fact that did happen gives us an opportunity to focus on the issue of how women are treated in science,” Michl explained. “I think that the most important thing is to attract highly competent people into the field.”